On the surface of it, Rep. Jason Chaffetz's bill to deny federal employment to people who are "seriously delinquent" on their federal income taxes is a no-brainer. Of course people who are paid by the taxpayers should be compliant taxpayers themselves.
But, in today's political climate, the Federal Employee Tax Accountability Act cannot be judged only on its surface. In the current hyper-partisan atmosphere, which in some places has taken on the appearance of a battle between public employees and private wealth, the bill that passed the House the other day smacks of a politician seeking to win points among tea party government-haters by promising to attack civil servants on their behalf.
Thus the bill passed the Republican-dominated House, but is said to stand little chance in the Democratic-majority Senate. If it does die there, it will be no great loss.
On the state level, particularly, the cost of public workers has stirred up highly divisive fights as Republicans move to strip away pay, pensions, union representation and other worker rights and benefits.
The Utah congressman's bill, commendably, is much less of a blunderbuss approach. In fact, it contains such precision, and so many exceptions, that it is entirely possible that it would affect very few people.
Under the bill, the federal Office of Personal Management would be responsible for coming up with a process by which current federal employees may be terminated, and future candidates barred, if they are "seriously delinquent" on their taxes. The bill defines that term as being so far behind on one's taxes, and so far along in the process, that they have been served with an IRS lien. It also would specifically not apply to any taxpayer who had already worked out a payment agreement for back taxes, or to those who were still in the process of appealing a pending IRS action.
The bill would even allow managers to waive the firing or banning requirements, "in a situation involving financial hardship, if the continued service of such employee is in the best interests of the United States, as determined on a case-by-case basis."
As it is, the tax compliance rate among federal workers is already better than for the public as a whole. And firing someone because they are seriously behind on their taxes is not the best way to enable that person to scrape up the money to pay his or her taxes.
On balance, this is one of those message bills that Utah politicians love so much. Less harmful, apparently, than most, but still not worth much effort.